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Film / Insomnia

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"A good cop can't sleep because he's missing a piece of the puzzle. And a bad cop can't sleep because his conscience won't let him."
Ellie Burr, from the 2002 version

Insomnia is a 1997 Norwegian Psychological Thriller film directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg and starring Stellan Skarsgård which received a 2002 American remake directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank.

"White Night" (or "The Midnight Sun") is a phenomenon in which the sun is still visible after midnight in settlements near the Arctic Circle — in some cases, it won't set for months at a time. It is during this season when the savagely beaten body of a local teenage girl is found in a remote Northern town (Tromsø, Norway in the original and Nightmute, Alaska in the remake). The vicious nature of the killing and the meticulous manner in which the body was cleaned has confounded the local police, who soon realize that they need help.

Skarsgård (Pacino as in the remake) plays a jaded, disgraced big-city police detective (Kripos and LAPD respectively) who is flown in together with his partner, to bring the case to a swift end through their wealth of experience with violent crime.

However, due to the stress of the investigation, combined with an extreme case of insomnia brought on by the White Nights, he ends up committing a fatal error when he tries to hunt down the killer — a botch-up that he, overwhelmed by his sleepless frenzy, attempts to cover up.

Soon, the lines between fantasy and reality start to blur, leaving him to question the sins of his past and the bleak prospect of his future. Little does he know that the man he's been hunting is watching him closely, and one tragic mistake is all the killer will need to exploit the detective's weakness...

No relation to the Stephen King novel Insomnia, or the gaming/philosophy website, or the Legend of Zelda fanfic Insomnia.

This film contains examples of:

  • Accidental Murder:
    • Engström/Dormer accidentally shoots his partner while they're tracking the killer through the mist (in the remake, he covers it up because he had a motive for killing him). Towards the end, however, not even he is sure whether it was an accident or not.
    • Subverted with the young girl's death. The killer claims that this is how she died. While in the original, it's left rather vague, with the killer probably killing her in a fit of rage, whereas in the remake, he's obviously just making excuses. Dormer points out that the autopsy showed that he would have to have taken around 10 minutes to beat her to death. While he apparently had no prior plans to do the deed, it's clearly second-degree murder.
  • Affably Evil: Walter Finch in the remake is very polite and friendly towards Dormer, viewing him as a similar mind.
  • Age Lift:
    • The remake swaps the ages of the main detective and his partner - Engström is younger than Vik in the original, but Dormer is older than Hap. The age difference plays a role in former because it is implied Vik has grown senile, causing him to run into Engström's shot. The circumstances of Hap's shooting carry a darker undercurrent for Dormer.
    • The ages of the two primary female characters - the local detective and the hotel receptionist - are also swapped in the films. Likewise, their personalities are switched; Ellie shares Ane's enamored feelings for the detective, while Hagen and Clement act more professionally around him.
  • And Your Little Dog, Too!: In the original, Holt threatens to get Ane next if Engström doesn't back off. He was evidently only bluffing, though, since he never did it. In the remake, Finch does go through with it, capturing Ellie.
  • Anti-Climax: The original's finale at first promises to become a tense standoff, with Holt holding Engström at gunpoint. Then Engström disarms Holt, Holt beats the snot out of Engström and then tries to run away, only to fall through the pier's derelict floor and break his neck. Naturally, this was quite deliberate. Averted in the remake.
  • Anti-Hero: The detective. In the original, he is a generally blunt person, and rather cold-blooded and ruthless in his attempts to clear his name. In the remake, he is far more desperate and unwilling, playing the killer's games for reasons that are far less selfish in nature.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: In the end of the original, Engström stops to contemplate Holt, who fell through a decayed pier as he tried to run away, breaking his neck and then slipping into the sea, as Holt slowly drowns. All in all, the killer is quite a bit more pathetic here than in the remake, where he is ever-so a bit worse.
  • Anti-Villain: In the original, Holt the killer. On one hand, he is a devious, cowardly murderer, but then again, he is very clearly a damaged soul who keeps atoning for it throughout the film.
  • Asshole Victim: Randy in the remake, whom the two men discuss setting up for Kay's murder. He didn't kill her but was certainly abusive. In the original, the boyfriend was green with envy at his dead girlfriend, but he never became physical. Also, he poked fun at Engström's Suedicisms.
    • Arguably Eckhardt in the remake. He's apparently under investigation for corruption, and plans to cut a deal by turning on Dormer. Dormer only ever broke the rules to convict someone who murdered a child, and points out that revealing this would put every case he's ever worked in jeopardy. Despite his pleading, Eckhardt is determined to save his own skin.
  • Berserk Button: The killer beat the girl to death because she pushed his. When she came to him for comfort after having a fight with her boyfriend, he came onto her. She laughed at him, and he reacted with violence.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Both films. In the original, Holt is dead, and Engström walks free... driving into a possible Despair Event Horizon. In the remake, both Finch and Dormer die, though the latter has finally found a way to atone for his guilt.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: The remake. The killer is a cheerful and smiling, but ice-cold psychopath, while Dormer is an angst-ridden Dirty Cop who genuinely tries to do good in an indifferent world, but is forced to dig himself deeper into an inexcusable pit. The two men's relationship could, at best, be likened to a fish caught helplessly in the fisherman's hook.
  • Bluffing the Murderer: The detective pulls this off almost immediately after arriving in the town (which, at least in the remake, tips off the killer that he's not just dealing with "backwoods locals" any more).
  • Braids, Beads and Buckskins: In the remake, a mechanic and police constable, both Native American, have long braided hair.
  • Broken Pedestal: Ellie's view of Dormer in the remake.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Engström's Beretta, literally, in the original. Since Norwegian police do not usually carry guns, he is the only officer at the scene who bears one (being a former Swedish policeman). This comes into play later when he accidentally shoots his partner dead during the sting.
  • Cultural Translation: Seen rather pointedly in the approaches of the police force in both films. In the Norwegian original, their hunt for the killer is carried out at a calm and laid-back pace and attitude (example: when he flees into the cabin, the police just walk after him), since (most of) the policemen don't carry guns, and don't expect the killer to carry one either. In the remake, all police show up reasonably well-armed and never break out of combat formation, since an armed suspect is seen as a distinct possibility.
  • Damsel in Distress: Ellie in the remake, when Finch knocks her out and prepares to kill her, forcing Dormer to rescue her from him.
  • Deal with the Devil: The killer, having witnessed the detective accidentally shooting his partner, offers to remain silent on the matter if the detective agrees to help clear him of the girl's murder.
  • Death by Adaptation: Dormer in the remake, although he finds peace and redemption, unlike his counterpart Engström.
  • Delinquents: The victim's boyfriend. When Dormer interrogates him, he at first tries to affect what Dormer calls a "fuck the world" attitude. After Dormer points out that the boyfriend is making himself out to be the prime suspect through his own stupidity, the kid is more forthcoming.
  • Disney Villain Death Holt in the original. He plunges to his death when a few wooden beams give away from under him. It's not as pretty as the usual Disney Villain Death though, as he is seen paralysed as he goes under in the bight.
  • Domestic Abuse: Randy would hit Kay sometimes, although she kept coming back to him and according to Finch, tried to make excuses for it.
  • Endless Daytime: The films takes place under the midnight sun.
  • Exact Words: Dormer telling Farrell (a deputy who was wounded by the killer shortly before Eckhardt was shot) that the fault belongs to the person who killed Kay Connell, rather than saying it belongs to the person who shot Eckhart.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The killer, at least in the remake, tries to be friendly and sympathetic to Dormer. When Dormer is in the killer's home, he calls Dormer up and says he can use the shower if he wants. He also talks about the great respect he has for the police and even offers to listen if Dormer wants to talk about his partner. Though it's pretty obvious, even to the sleep-deprived Dormer, that the killer isn't doing this out of the kindness of his heart, but as a means to an end.
  • Fille Fatale: The murder victim's friend. She's underage, but she tries to flirt with Detective Dormer, who is clearly uninterested. But she's just as clearly used to using her body to get her way, so she doesn't notice. The whole reason he took her for a drive was to interrogate her later. She doesn't take well to his interrogation method.
  • Film Noir: A hard-boiled yet angst-ridden cop with a Dark and Troubled Past he's trying to escape. Moral complications galore. It's a pretty dark film considering it takes place entirely in bright sunlight.
  • Foreign Remake: The 2002 version is an American one of the eponymous 1997 Norwegian thriller.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: The detective's sin (he forged evidence in order to get a killer convicted), which he is concerned internal investigations will discover. Also, the killer's rationale for framing the dead girl's abusive boyfriend.
  • Funny Foreigner: Engström is this to the Norwegians in the original. He's a Swede who joined the Norwegian Politi after falling out of grace with the Swedish Polisen.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Zig-zagged. Tanya justifies her affair with Randy by saying that Kay was ignoring him for her mysterious admirer, but that relationship wasn't a romantic one, and was partially motivated by Randy's poor treatment of Kay.
  • Great Detective: Dormer is introduced this way, being a veteran detective Famed in Story for all of the infamous murders he's solved quickly finding details the initial examination missed in a Sherlock Scan of Kay's body, and additional ones when examining her room. Following that, he suggests a psychological attack to catch their main suspect off-guard.He sets up an impressive trap using her backpack while identifying some useful evidence from the backpack. By the second half of the film, he's turning into more of a Hard Boiled Detective, struggling not to become a Fallen Hero (assuming he isn't already).
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: The original, albeit bordering on Evil Versus Evil. The killer is something of a labile, choleric pervert, but Engström harbours a terrifyingly ruthless and unhinged personality of his own - even if his judgement is undeniably clouded by his insomnia. In this version, the corruption is much less one-sided, with both men trading threats, blackmail, and flights of panic.
  • Hell Is That Noise: The audible beeping noise of the traffic lights slowly mutates into one in the original.
  • Has Two Thumbs and... Loves Blowjobs?: Said by Duggar, one of the Sheriff's deputies in the remake.
  • The Hero Dies: Dormer himself at the end of the remake. It straddles the line between downer and bittersweet. He redeems himself for his sins and kills Kay's murderer, and he ensures that Ellie Burr maintains her integrity. On the other hand, by doing so Dormer ensures that a large part of his life's work will be undone when his dishonesty gets out.
  • Hero Worship: Ellie deeply respects Dormer and follows his career, and it's implied that this was the extent of Kay Connell's feelings towards author Walter Finch.
  • I Didn't Mean to Kill Him: The killer tells the detective who's investigating him (and whom he's blackmailing to help him pin the murder on someone else) that he "didn't mean" to beat his teenage victim to death. When he repeats the same nonsense later on, the detective points out that he knows it took him ten minutes.
  • Ironic Name: Dormer's name is a cognate for the word "to sleep" in several Romance languages. Even moreso, his first name is "Will." His name is literally "the will to sleep" when in fact he is The Insomniac.
  • The Insomniac: Played in realistic fashion by the detective, (as well as Finch in the remake, who sympathizes with him in a series of taunting phone calls).
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Dormer only broke the rules once in his long career as a detective (the Dodd Case) and it threatens to ruin him in the midst of an internal affairs investigation, also causing him to cover up accidentally killing his partner and then being blackmailed by a killer. In the end, he does manage to stop sliding and end the film on heroic note, but it's strongly implied that Ellie will expose him, and damage his reputation. something Dormer himself seems at peace with.
  • Karma Houdini: Engström in the original. He ends up getting away scot-free with shooting his own partner, fondling a minor, framing an innocent, forcing himself upon the receptionist, and shooting a dog. Then again, it's implied that he might never get to sleep over it again.
  • Large Ham: Surprisingly averted by both Al Pacino and Robin Williams, who both give very restrained and understated performances.
    • Though Al Pacino has some short but memorable moments when he raises his voice.
    Will: This is where your best friend's naked body was found...WRAPPED UP IN GARBAGE BAGS !!
  • Let Me at Him!: Invoked by the detective, who is being blackmailed by the killer for an incident in which he accidentally shot his partner. During the interrogation, the actual killer tries to steer the cops to suspect Kay's abusive boyfriend with a "smoking gun" piece of evidence. In the remake, Dormer has to get out of the interrogation room so he can find the weapon before the cops search the boyfriend's apartment, so he aggressively questions and tries to hit him so his colleagues will think he's overworked and let him out for a while).
  • Light Is Not Good: Most of the plot twists in the film occur because the detective is literally and figuratively unable to step out of the light and/or cover his actions due to the prevalence of daylight.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Walter Finch in the remake.
  • Morality Pet: Ellie for Dormer. Despite his guilt, he's clearly moved by her hero-worship and takes an interest in teaching her to be a better cop. In the end, she tries to get rid of evidence against him, and he stops her, telling her "don't lose your way).
  • Mutual Kill: Finch and Dormer shoot each other in the climax. Finch falls into the water and is clearly dead due to not having any air bubbles come to the surface as he sinks. Dormer apparently dies in Ellie's arms as the movie closes.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The trailer of the remake made it look like a serial killer movie in the vein of The Silence of the Lambs and implies that a line about one of Dormer's previous cases (where a pedophile kept someone to rape and torture for three days) is about the current case.
  • Not Now, Kiddo: Detective Duggars, and deputies Rich and Francis show some of this towards Ellie and hr investigation, although to be fair the most blatant moment comes after they have reason to think the case is closed.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: The killer, a crime author himself, attempts this on the detective several times throughout the film - more subtly in the original, more overtly in the remake (at one point, he mentions that he's always had a great deal of respect for cops, and wanted to be one himself, though he couldn't pass the physical exam). In the original, this also becomes otherwise increasingly apparent with both men's sexual frustration and violent urges shining through.
  • Not-So-Harmless Villain: Finch is definitely this in the remake. He's totally capable to deal with Burr, successfully fend off Dormer and eventually kill him as well, even if he himself dies in the process.
  • Ominous Fog: In both versions, the first chase leads the protagonist, the police and the murderer into an unexpected fog field.
  • Once More, with Clarity: As is the case with Christopher Nolan films, there's a couple of shots that take on a new significance when they're shown again later. The movie opens with an extreme closeup of a white cloth being stained with something red, presumably blood. Much later it turns out that this wasn't the victim's blood on her clothes, but blood Dormer was planting on someone clothes in a completely different case, and accidentally getting some on his shirt sleeve. A little later, we get snippets of a girl laughing, which looks like Dormer imagining the victim alive and happy. Then Finch tells Dormer about how he killed the victim for laughing at him. We see the shot again, but this time her laughter is cut short by a blow to the head.
  • Out-Gambitted: Dormer pretends to be guiding French through a way to subtly throw suspicion onto Randy while planting the gun back in his house, only for Finch to find that out, take out the gun and put it in Randy's before saying something he knows will get Duggars to search there.
  • Pet the Dog: Walter Finch in the remake is a cold-blooded murderer and a literal example who owns two Labrador retrievers. When Detective Dormer tracks him down to his apartment the killer is forced to flee, but calls back to make a deal with Dormer and asks him to feed his dogs if he's there anyway. In the original, Holt might be deranged, but nevertheless grief-stricken over what he did.
  • Polar Madness: Both the original and the remake are set in towns close to the Arctic Circle where the sun never sets for months at a time: because of this, the main character begins to suffer Sanity Slippage due to his inability to sleep during these "white nights" - exacerbated by guilt over accidentally shooting his partner dead - to the point that he begins to hallucinate.
  • Redemption Equals Death: The detective's sins keep accumulating throughout the film. First, he is living with the guilt of betraying his own ethics to get a criminal behind bars, then of shooting his partner possibly intentionally, then of helping another murderer get away to protect his legacy. In the remake, Dormer atones by turning against Finch, but dies in the shootout shortly after killing Finch.
  • Returning to the Scene: The detective has specific information leaked to the press about highly incriminating evidence found in connection to the murder of Kay so that the killer will go back to the scene (where he dumped the girl's backpack in the original, and the cabin of the murder in the remake) to remove more evidence. The cops are waiting for him (having already discovered the bag/cabin), but they didn't know that there was an underground passageway beneath the cabin which then allows the killer to get away.
  • Scenery Porn: Both Northern Norway and Alaska have some beautiful scenery to show off... although the original seems to try hard to ignore it.
  • Shoot the Dog: In the original, Engström shoots a neighbour's dog to forge a malformed bullet he could substitute for his own. In the remake, this is downplayed, as Dormer just shoots a dog's rotting cadaver.
  • Skeleton Key Card: In the remake, when Dormer first enters Finch's apartment, he picks the lock using a credit card. In the original, Engström uses conventional police-issue lockpicks.
  • Sliding Scaleof Idealism Vs Cynicism: The original is situated at the deep dark end, with a protagonist so morally bankrupt that one'd be hard-pressed to even call him a 'good guy'. The remake, on the other hand, sits somewhere in the upper half, with the detective's good side shining through despite everything.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: The police chief who asked to consult Dormer and Eckhardt on the case largely remains detached from the investigation and is only in two or three scenes, but that request has serious consequences for the two detectives, and the man their after.
  • There Are Two Kinds of People in the World: In the remake, it's those who were born in Alaska and those who come there to escape something. Upon hearing Dormer's confession, his landlord says this - and that she wasn't born in Alaska - to tell him You Are Not Alone.
    • The killer wasn't born in Alaska either, subtly implying that his current crime isn't his only dark secret.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: The killer - Jon Holt, as played by Bjørn Floberg, and Walter Finch, as played by Robin Williams.
  • To Be Lawful or Good: How the detective initially sees the choices he makes. In the remake, that desire persists to the end. In the original, it does not.
  • Unfriendly Fire: Implied in the remake, as questions arise as to whether Dormer shooting fellow detective Eckhardt in the mist was truly an accident.
    • Eckhardt certainly thinks that Dormer shot him on purpose, as evidenced by his Last Words. The killer, hidden in the mist, observes all of this and uses it to try and get leverage on Dormer throughout the movie.
  • Villain Protagonist: Heavily downplayed in the remake, compared to the original. In the original, Engström is far more of a dirty cop, who gets progressively worse as the film goes on. In the remake, Dormer is more of a good cop whose past mistakes are coming back to haunt him in his sleep-deprived state.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: In the remake, many of Dormer's actions were done out of a genuine belief in Justice and to make sure guilty people get caught.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: The killer repeatedly expresses his wonder as to why the detective couldn't just admit to shooting his colleague by mistake, as it wouldn't have ended nearly as bad for him as being caught manipulating the investigation. The killer's not really outraged by it, he's just using it a psychological tactic to convince Dormer that they're the same and should work together.
  • Worthy Opponent: In the remake, Finch views his relationship with Will like this. Will, however, thinks he's no more intelligent or special than the innumerable killers he's dealt with before.